This beautiful and freshly preserved watercolour by Ibbetson was made at the beginning of his career; stylistically it shows how utterly he had mastered the fluid pen-work of Thomas Rowlandson, whilst its subject-matter offers a fascinating insight into London at the close of the eighteenth century.
Ibbetson was born by caesarean-section, hence his unusual names, in Leeds. He was educated by the local Moravian community and latterly by the Quakers in Leeds before being apprenticed to John Fletcher, a ship painter in Hull. Ibbetson left his apprenticeship early and moved to London where he worked principally as a picture restorer for an unscrupulous dealer, telling Joseph Farington that he was '4 years in the hands of those Harpiece the Picture Dealers, and describe their frauds with humour and acrimony.' Ibbetson found employment as draughtsman to Colonel Charles Cathcart on his commercial mission to Peking in 1787, although Cathcart's death en route prompted the premature end of the expedition.
The present watercolour was made in 1798 and shows soldiers, women and children in Hyde Park. It offers a fascinating portrait of London at the end of the eighteenth century as rapid urbanisation was transforming areas such as Hyde Park. In its combination of professional, urban types and apparently rustic figures, Ibbetson captures the transforming city. The cow to the right of the composition and the small girl drinking from a glass suggests that one of the figures is identifiable as a milkmaid. Milkmaids occupied a complex position in the eighteenth-century imagination, frequently being depicted in popular songs, pornography and graphic art as figures of ambiguous morals. The milkmaid may well be the seated figure on the right, who is being embraced by the soldier. Soldiers proliferate, two mounted dragoons are on the left and two infantrymen are shown lying and seated in the foreground. The presence of so many military figures reminds us that London was the location for a number of military encampments in a decade that Britain began almost twenty years of war.